It's been an eventful time for Local Natives since they won many friends with their debut album Gorilla Manor in 2009. Despite seeming to specialise in blissful, harmony-laden tracks on that record, sweetness and light has not always followed them. Not only did bassist Andy Hamm depart in 2011 in circumstances the band have described as "heartbreaking" but the group have suffered personal set backs in the intervening years, including the death of family members. However, determined to move forward, the band are set to release second album Hummingbird - produced by The National's guitarist Aaron Dessner - next week (28 January). We sat down with Kelcey Ayer and Matt Frazier to talk about their journey so far.
How the devil are you? Kelcey Ayer: "Good thanks, fighting jet lag. I thought we'd be over it by now. But the vibes are good everyone's happy."
You were planning to build a studio to record this record, did that happen? KA: "Well it wasn't a proper studio. It was a rehearsal space and then a ghetto attempt as a studio. Any room with a computer is a studio now, you just record into it." Matt Frazier: "We were done touring, so we went back home to Silverlake and we wanted our own little spot. None of us had room at home, so after a long search we found this place through friends of friends. It's a weird little one-bedroom house on its own in the heart of Silverlake. It had been abandoned for a couple of years. We asked the landlord and he was a musician too so he was super excited that we would be turning into a studio, so he helped us fund the project." KA: "There were vines growing inside and the foundations were totally messed up, it almost looked like a fun house. It was a real project. We're pretty proud of ourselves, we'd never done anything like that before."
So you got some decent DIY skills out of it? KA: "Yeah, man! Buzz saws, everything."
Yet despite having your own base, you ended up recording the album on the opposite side of America in a studio in New York that belongs to a certain Aaron Dessner from The National... KA: "We spent a year in our space, organising stuff, figuring out the bits we liked. Then when we started talking to Aaron about it at the beginning of last year. We'd done some shows with The National and joked about working together - we sent him some demos to see if he was interested, just going out on a limb. He was really keen on the idea and as he has his studio in Brooklyn and we wanted to record the record outside of LA it all came together. We'd never lived for a long period of time outside of Southern California so we all wanted to get outside our comfort zones and displace ourselves from home."
So you held him to a drunken backstage conversation on tour? KA: "We were cold calling producers we liked anyway, so as we had more of a relationship with him we spent a few nights hanging out, joked about it and then when we got down to it we thought: Well let's see what he thinks. He's definitely a capable producer, he does all The National stuff, and just did the Sharon Van Etten record so it seemed a great fit. He's a great engineer and a songwriter we respect. We felt he'd get us more. We'd tried some people and it didn't pan out. It was weird, we'd never had anyone in on the creative process before." MF: "One of the big appeals for us was him being an artist in his own right. He gets where we're coming from." KA: "He writes a lot of it in his band and then they all get in the room to suss it out, so he knows the band dynamic and the politics of it [laughs]. He gets how it can be dicey sometimes and how it can be great when everyone's in the same mindset and it's flowing. It was great right form the get go. "
Hummingbird feels a very emotionally charged album, is that something you recognise? MF: "Definitely, it's a lot more personal record, I think, for everybody. We feel like we've grown a lot in the last couple of years. We've seen our wildest dreams come true, to succeed as musicians and then after we hit some lower points that more trying. The last couple of years were certainly some of the most trying times we've been through as a band, as musicians and as people. A lot of that speaks into the record."
It's strange on one hand you enjoying things and yet bad things still keep coming. Obviously you had a band member quit... KA: "Yeah, it was very stretching. You're trying to be happy about what's going on and then there are personal things that take you away from it. It's weird, you think that these would be the happiest years of your life when you finally get some people to be into the music that you're making, then life... well it doesn't stop. There's always going to be something that throws a wrench into everything. That's underlying this record, it was a darker, emotional time for us, but having gone through it to the other side, we all feel a bit... it's hard not to go to clichés but we feel stronger and more connected."
Was it good that when the darker times came you were making a record? You had somewhere to pour them into? KA: "Right! Yeah, totally!"
In terms of the music, the album has come out sounding quite expansive. Were there any particular influences for that? KA: "It's hard, everybody writes and so everybody can be into different things at different points. A few of us went through our first Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen phases. We all got into Pink Moon by Nick Drake, but it's not necessarily shown in the music. Maybe great things inspire you to try to reach for something in your vein. I got really into Portishead. I hadn't know their stuff that well, especially the recent one, Third. I got into darker, gloomier stuff and that is the gloomiest! It's the darkest record I'd ever heard, it felt like I'd been looking for it for so long. So some of it made it into the stuff I wrote."
With everyone writing, how hard is it to referee your creative process? MF: "It's always been this democracy where everyone's say is equal, so it can be trying at times. We know that the result will be the product from all of us and not something one of us could have achieved on their own. That makes us who we are as a band. That's important." KA: "Everyone is on the same page on just that. It's agreed we're all happy with what happens when we go through all this. When we're banging our heads against the wall, that's when we have to remember we agree! It can get pretty tough."
With Andy quitting did that change writing and recording for you? MF: "Yeah, that definitely played a lot into it. We were still a four piece acting as a five piece. We couldn't play the songs live while we were writing but that pushed us more." KA: "We've been used to playing as a five piece for so long and we didn't want to have to sacrifice old songs live so we wanted to keep being a five piece and maybe have another guy join in the future. But as there were four of us in the studio we had to work out how to do that and we started relying on beats and loops, that opened up so much space for us."
What are the moments on this album that you'd point to as you being outside your comfort zones?? KA: "I think Three Months is a big one. It's weird for us to have fake drums." MF: "That's a song we'd had for a while and tried it a bunch of ways but it didn't fit with the mood of the song. Ryan [Hahn] came-up with these samples from these old 60s soul records and made a drum loop. We've never done that before, it's always been me playing the drums. So something like that is definitely different. A song like Black Spot is out there for us." KA: "I think as odd as it sounds, it felt weird not to put a harmony on every part. To have Three Months, which has no harmonies, and You & I which, only has a subtle thing on the choruses, is weird for us. We were trying to tell ourselves to do things more purposely, only put them on there if it sounds good - don't just be the harmony band! Don't be tied down to one thing. It's cool you thought it was expansive. That's what we were definitely going for. We didn't want to go down one ally."
As it's sounds both musically and personally this was a tough album for you, do you have highlights or are you still to close to it? MF: "I feel that with the way we work it takes us a long time to get a song to the point where we say, That's it. So the song Black Spot stands out to me because it came out really quickly. We went out to Joshua Tree for a week during the writing process and rented this weird dome house. Two songs came out of it and that was one of them. It came together in a couple of hours. I feel like it's really different for us and an important part of the record." KA: Probably You & I. It's a big one. I had it for a long time on piano and it has this sombre feel. It never felt right. We've had it since 2010 and we've worked on it. But at the beginning of last year Ryan and I started messing around with it - it was a our first foray into synths - and got it totally right. So I was glad we figured it out. We were working on it for so long, it was pissing me off!" Paul Stokes @Stokesie
For more head to Thelocalnatives.com.